Lament and Thanksgiving

Sometimes we have to read the riot act to each other. When I was a basketball player in high school, I played point guard and sometimes the coach would yell at me: “Strommen, have you fallen asleep out there? Play defense! Run the plays. No, not that one! Will you get with the program?” Sports coaches are sort of notorious for yelling, aren’t they? All of us have had someone get on our case or had to get on someone else’s case and basically say, “What’s the matter with you, anyway?”

What happens when you have to get on God’s case and read the riot act to God? Is that OK? Many would say, “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. It’s disrespectful. You have to have faith. Plus, you’re likely to get struck down or something.”

But the Bible is full of people who argue with God, question God, shake their fist at God for one reason or another. Psalm 13 is such an example. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

But the minute we think the psalmist has lost his faith, he concludes his rant this way: “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” As a father who knows how to give good gifts to his children.

Let me ask you, does that sound like a lack of faith and respect? No, indeed, it does not.

The life of faith includes two very different expressions, lament and thanksgiving, and sometimes one right after the other. Both of these expressions are vital to a healthy faith and life. Lamenting gives us space to speak frankly with God and air our complaints. Thanksgiving encourages us to turn our eyes to the big picture, look back at our life story and the many good things God has given us, including sustaining us through the years, giving us the gifts of faith, hope and love. Along with the fist shaking can be the reaffirmation of a God who is gracious and shows up next to us in the foxholes of life. And when we lament and praise together, maybe, just maybe, we can find new confidence that God will see us through the present.

Let’s take a closer look at the importance of lamenting. When I was having a tough time after losing my younger brother, I visited my cousin, who was a doctoral student at the University of Chicago. I told him I felt anger towards God, but felt that it was probably wrong for me to feel that way. He said something I shall never forget. He said, “John, let God have it. Don’t hold back. God’s big enough to handle it.”

He happens to be right. If there’s anyone who can handle our rants and our jabs and punches, it’s God. People will probably get defensive, may not be able to handle our anger or criticism. God? I don’t think it will throw him too much.

But not only can God handle our raw and uncut self, God is in solidarity with us. In Jesus, God has located himself deep in human flesh in order to feel the pain, brokenness and alienation we feel. That’s the point of Christmas and Holy Week. And as God has joined us in the trenches, God took the pain, brokenness and alienation of ours upon himself. Why? So that we wouldn’t have to carry it ourselves. So in Jesus, God joins our anguished cries in life, even when they are directed at God. Remember, it was Jesus himself who once railed at his father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But God also carries our brokenness for us so that we will one day be healed. This is God’s promise to us and if we are listening, faith happens. Hope happens.

For the many who cry out for justice over the Philando Castile verdict, there is a cry to God as well: “How long, Lord? How long will you turn your back on us?” Whether you agree or disagree with the recent verdict, this has been a cry in black America for a long time. The spiritual songs that black America has produced give rise to this cry of “how long,” finding comfort at the same time in the God who suffers with them as well as claiming that God is good and has blessed them.

So whether it’s a persecuted group or us, when we say to God, “Where are you God? Why have you forgotten about me? Why have these things happened to me?” God is with you through Jesus, crying out with you. And God the Father listens to you as a father who desires a genuine and transparent relationship with you.  And God through the Holy Spirit empowers you to continue to receive God’s gift of life and love.

There are many reasons that people don’t go to church these days. They may feel shame over not fitting the church-goer image, maybe carrying stigmas and brokenness from their past. And there are those who are angry with God, so they stay away. I’ll never forget Lynn, a senior high student. Lynn was so angry about her grandfather being taken from her that she had no time for church. She did have time, though, for a special support group where youth could speak their minds, however raw that group sometimes got. That was church, too, although Lynn may not have realized it.

How can we let our friends, neighbors and co-workers know that church is a place for people with pain and struggle? A place where people can be honest and even have it out with God? One of our opportunities at Mt Carmel for the future is to learn more how to gather with each other and our neighbors and wrestle together with faith and life.

And as we do so, let us not overlook in the midst of our struggle the God who has taken us this far and bears us up, promising to continue to be faithful to us.

In fact, it’s possible that we can’t really celebrate and be thankful unless we are honest with our pain and questions. In the book, Tuesdays with Morrie, we learn the story of a man dying of ALS whose journey is chronicled by a writer through interviews and visits. At one point, the writer asks Morrie how he can be so positive all the time. He responds that well, you only see me in the afternoon. In the morning, it’s a different story. In the morning, I let out all my anger and complaints and grief. When I’ve done so, I am cleansed and free to embrace the life that remains.

Maybe it’s a bit like the life of faith. Boldly come clean with God about the hard stuff, then come back to the abiding goodness that is ours through Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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Pastor John is Mt. Carmel’s Senior Pastor.

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